Mashatu is known for its leopard sightings, especially in winter. Mashatu is a game reserve located in the south-east corner of Botswana tucked between South Africa and Zimbabwe. Our recent trip to Mashatu was no exception, in fact it was better than usual. In winter, it gets very dry which forces the wildlife to concentrate around the remaining pools of water in the rivers. The elephants are also key to making water available for other wildlife. The elephants must be able to smell the water under the sand. The water table seems to be about two to three feet below the surface of the river bed in certain places. The elephants sense this and dig down into the sand with their feet. The ground water seeps through the sand and pools in the hole. This is the cleanest freshest water available for the wildlife in late winter.
“The human family has invaluable friends and irreplaceable allies in the plant and animal worlds. We cannot continue to tug at the web of life without tearing a hole in the very fabric of our earthly existence-and eventually falling through that hole ourselves.”
Mashatu’s leopards tend to live close to and along the rivers. This is where their prey concentrates in winter. Along the large rivers such as the Majale, Matabole and Nwenze there are many large trees, such as Mashatu trees, Boer-beans, Leadwoods and Apple Leafs. These large trees provide them with a safe place to rest, a place to escape from lions and hyaenas and a place to stash their kills.
“Every thread you discover in the local web of life leads beyond your place to life elsewhere.”
Along the Majale river just downstream from Candor camp we found this female leopard. Something that caught her interest. We could not see anything so we followed her from a distance.
She quickly and quietly made her way through the dappled light along the treeline next to the river. The spots and rosettes which form her coat pattern provided wonderful camouflage. When looking at this leopard I wondered why its tail curled up at the end. The position and movement of the leopard’s tail gives some clues as to its level of excitement.
“The trick to not being discovered until it is too late is to become part of the expected surroundings. Stealth is more the art of blending in with the background than sneaking through dark shadows.”
~ Raymond E. Feist
It was only a hundred or so metres further on that we saw what had caught this young female leopard’s attention. Through the trees was a small herd of impala grazing at the outer edge of the croton grove. We never got to see the final outcome.
Further along the Majale river our guide, Graphite, stopped adjacent to a large Weeping Boer-bean tree which was growing at an angle out of the river bank. Its roots had been partially exposed by previous years’ floods. Somehow, Graphite saw this leopard lying in the shadows among the roots of this large overhanging tree. This male leopard was so well camouflaged that we would never have seen him if his position had not been pointed out to us.
The reason the large male was lying quietly at the base of the tree became apparent. He had caught a warthog piglet and stashed it on a large bough of the tree above him. Sometime later we returned to find him devouring his meal. He lay on top of the piglet to hold it down while he tore pieces off it. He used his paws to prevent it from moving sideways while his large canines and powerful jaws enabled him to tear off chunks of meat. He devoured most of the piglet including many of the bones as they must have been soft.
The guides are in radio communication with each other and pass on information on location of the cats, hyaenas and elephants. The next day we found the site where a leopard cub had been seen. It had retreated into an old partially hollowed out fallen tree. Two lioness were sleeping right next to the entrance of the log’s opening. The cub knew to stay inside the log as they would have killed it if they could. The cubs mother was nowhere to be seen. The following day we returned to the dead log and there was no sign of the lionesses or the cub. Only later did we find the cub with its mother way up in a large Mashatu tree, well out of reach of lions and hyaenas. This was the remaining cub from a litter of two. No one knows what happened to the other cub but it was thought to have been killed by a male leopard, which was not its father.
The cub’s mother was resting in the lower part of the Mashatu tree having found a comfortable bough to lie on with a support for her head. The previous two days must have been “hair-raising” for this young mother having to cope with a strange male leopard and lions who wanted to kill her and her remaining cub.
As only a lady can!!
The remaining cub was very high up in the Mashatu tree above its mother. It was staying well out of sight.
Cool, comfortable and safe.
After a harrowing previous day and probably night, this leopard cub was fast asleep high up in the branch of the Mashatu tree.
Later that afternoon, we found a large male leopard walking along the side of the dry river bed. He was a big strapping male. It is difficult to accurately tell how old a leopard is but the state of its coat and its teeth give tell-tale signs. This was a young male who looked to be in his prime.
Leopards usually move around at night but if you are lucky you may see one in the early morning and late afternoon. They sleep up a tree out of sight during the day and are most active at night when they have the greatest advantage over their prey.
This was no ordinary male leopard. He was a big strong young male, and he oozed confidence.
“The sense of smell, like a faithful counsellor, foretells its character.”
~ Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
He appeared to be on a mission, walking with purpose along the side of the river. The shadow he presented showed it was mid-morning, quite late for him to be out and about.
Eventually he got to his destination. Again his camouflage was superb. Without having seen him walk to this spot we would have never seen him.
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
~ William Butler Yeats
He was following the scent of a kill. A female leopard had killed a Steenbok the day before and stashed it in an acacia in the bank above the area he was smelling.
This male smelt all around the area where the female must have killed the Steenbok. There was nothing there that we could see or smell. It is hard to imagine what picture he was getting from the previous day’s encounter.
It took him around five minutes to find the remains of the Steenbok up in the acacia tree which he promptly stole.
“Wisdom comes with the ability to be still. Just look and listen. No more is needed. Being still, looking and listening activates the non-conceptual intelligence within you. Let stillness direct your word and actions.”
Later that afternoon, we found the same large male leopard further down stream along the Majale river. He had walked towards one of the few remaining pools of water in the river. It is very seldom that wildlife will walk straight down to a river and start drinking. Usually it will stand some distance off and have a good look around to see what danger lurks. This male leopard lay on the river bank in the late afternoon just watching all the goings on.
Eventually he moved down to a bank just above the remaining pool of water. He still did not drink immediately but just lay down on the sand bank and watched the surrounds for a while longer. Needless to say by this time there were only guineafowl, sandgrouse and doves which were at the water’s edge with no antelope or warthogs anywhere to be seen..
He moved down to drink when the sun had almost set, leaving the river bank and pool in deep shade.
“Dusk is that inbetween time, when the bush releases its fragrances, when colours soften and for a short while everything seems to holds its breath.”
I was interested to see that this leopard did not ever drink with its eyes down. He was vigilant, watching everything around the pool while drinking. That stare gave me a feeling I don’t think I will ever forget.
Leopards do not drink water like dogs but rather they curl the tip of their tongue backwards and pull a column of water into their mouths. The water shoots into the mouth and the leopard closes its mouth synchronously to stop the water falling out of its mouth. All cats lap the water very quickly.
“That stare captivates and unsettles you. That stare directs an overwhelming sense of its power and presence. That stare sends a primal shiver down your spine.”
By the time I took this image it was quite dark. The ISO capabilities of the latest cameras are exceptional.
This big male leopard moved around to drink from a steeper part of the bank where the pool of the water must have been deeper and probably cleaner.
“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”
A powerful muscular male leopard.
I cannot easily describe what a thrill it is to see a large male leopard in a scene like this. The colours were soft and subtle and it was if everything around the pool stopped. He had such presence and commanded that “dusky stage”.
After sating his thirst this large male moved off into the night to exercise his deadly skills. This sentient being etched a deep, lingering impression in my psyche.
The next day we went back to see how the female leopard was doing with her cub. She had killed a Steenbok the day before and stashed it in a open knot of the Mashatu tree she was in. Surprisingly she did not stash her prey high up in the tree but within easy reach for hyaenas. We found her feeding on her Steenbok. Again this leopard lay on her prey while eating it to hold it down. Once she had finished she started to clean herself.
You never see a dirty or blood stained leopard!
“Seeing is so much more than looking and focus. It is the recognition of shape and colour. It is the fleeting manner of movement. It is the disruption of pattern.”
How Graphite saw this leopard I will never know. Wildlife guides have trained eyes and know what to look for but still Graphite’s eyesight was exceptional. Surprisingly, this leopard was some distance away from the river lying on the side of a stony outcrop in the shade of a small acacia tree. We were looking straight into the sun so that made all the more impressive that Graphite could spot this leopard.
Even with a telephoto zoom the leopard is still incredibly well camouflaged.
On the last afternoon of our sojourn, we found the now familiar large male leopard walking along a drainage line far away from the Majale river.
He had caught a Scrub Hare and was walking to a quiet place where the vehicles could not follow to eat his snack in peace.
The leopard sightings on this trip were exceptional. Mashatu is known for its leopard sighting in winter; it is much more difficult in summer. It was a real privilege to see and more importantly to sense these wonderful, fiercely independent and camouflaged predators. Each time I see these magnificent independent cats in the wild, I come away more impressed by their beauty and resourcefulness.
“The indigenous understanding has its basis of spirituality in a recognition of the inter-connectedness and interdependence of all living things, a holistic and balanced view of the world. All things are bound together. All things connect. What happens to the Earth happens to the children of the earth. Humankind has not woven the web of life; we are but one thread. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.
Howie. You really do write beautifully. It’s like picking up an exciting novel that you don’t want to put down – I really mean that. (Just like Helen with her book at Mashutu). You just want to read more and more. Brilliant my clever wonderful friend. Thank you both so incredibly much for inviting us once again. It’s difficult to explain how much it means to us. Love you both very much Xxx
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Enjoyed your photos and your story SO MUCH! Thank you!